‘Penance’. I wonder what that word means to you?
Perhaps it sounds a bit dark, difficult, burdensome, judgemental or harsh.
Or perhaps it makes you think of a new TV mini-series about to start on Tuesdays on Channel 5.
Either way, like fasting and almsgiving it’s not a word in general circulation.
Penance can refer to two things. First the act of making reparation for something that has been done wrong, or secondly the act of intentionally making confession of our sins.
I want to think about both meanings, but mostly about penance as the act of confession, particularly sacramental confession, which has become known also, and helpfully, as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Now there are those who say that the Church of England doesn’t do confession. Strange, because it does and it does because it’s deeply embedded in the scriptures.
Psalm 51 is a classic statement of confession, starting like this:
Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness: according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.
Wash me throughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me. (Psalm 51.3)
John the Baptist, our patron saint here, calls people to confession ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 3.3). And he does so in no uncertain terms: ‘you brood of vipers…’ (Luke 3.7).
And St James in his letter says, ‘The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. (James 5.15-16)
The Church of England has always retained sacramental Confession to a priest. In the Book of Common Prayer service The Visitation to the Sick it recommends that someone whose life is in danger or drawing to a close should confess their sins:
Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession, the Priest shall absolve him…
So Confession is not compulsory in the Church of England, at least not personal confession, but it is to be commended. At every Eucharist we begin with the penitential act of confession which is corporate if not individual.
The prominence or otherwise of penance in the Church of England is by the by, and old debates have moved on.
There’s a deeper issue though and it relates to our sense of shame and/or guilt and fear of being judged, either by other people or by God.
None of us wants to be judged. ‘Don’t judge me’ is one of the cries of our times.
It’s a way of saying, ‘please don’t trample on my fragile sense of who I am. I am a harsh enough judge of myself, without you judging me too’.
Penance seems to be about judgement.
But without judgement we lose our sense of accountability. If I can’t be judged, I can’t be held accountable or responsible for what I say or do.
One way we can engage with what it means to be accountable, and take responsibility for our lives is to subject ourselves to judgement, so as when we make our confession, when we do penance.
But, boy, is that hard.
It’s hard because then being judged gets mixed up with guilt.
Very often penance and confession are associated with guilt. And we have been trained in late modernity to believe guilt to be a dreadful thing.
Knowing that guilt is bad doesn’t make feelings of guilt go away. We even feel guilty about feeling guilty. And then guilt mutates into shame, which actually is rather worse.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is very interesting on this subject.
He distinguishes between ‘guilt-cultures’ and ‘shame-cultures’.
His argument is that in a guilt-based culture you have forgiveness, and the moment you have forgiveness you can say ‘mea culpa, I did wrong’. You take ownership of your shortcomings and know that, somewhere down the line, there is forgiveness.
Today, and social media magnifies it, you are: ‘trolled’; ‘called out’; ‘no platformed’; ‘deleted’. That is a shame-culture and there is no forgiveness in a shame-culture. There is no way back. So in a shame-culture you deny you did wrong, and keep denying it.
Shame cultures create scapegoats. I don’t want to be shamed and ostracised so I point the finger at someone else whatever the cost. Shame feeds more shame and is utterly corrosive. It’s the story of Adam and Eve: they hide; they throw blame around.
One last thought on guilt: it can also be a prompt or spur to act better!
Where does all this get us then?
The church has a means by which we can face up to, acknowledge, name and handover our sins and shortcomings. A place where we can be profoundly honest about ourselves. That is in confession, penance.
It is a place of reconciliation, restoration and forgiveness. It’s a way of rooting out the sins, that like weeds can become pernicious and invasive to our souls
Sin stunts who we are made to be; confession releases tension and self-loathing so that we are freed to be his children once again.
Someone once said that it is the most liberating thing to be called ‘a sinner’. It sounds really odd. It sounds like it diminishes who we are. It sounds like plain old-fashioned hellfire and damnation. But think about it: being declared ‘a sinner’ means there’s hope; being a sinner means we’re made good but fall short, and can be restored and renovated.
St Augustine saw penance as being therapeutic. Confessing our sins, he argued, is good for our souls, it is healing and helps us grow.
This is the spirit of what confession is about removing guilt by declaring forgiveness, sparing us shame and freeing us to be, as the hymn puts it, ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’.
I want to end by commending individual confession, penance, for precisely these reasons and as a way of growing in our faith and discipleship.